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Cliff Canyon – A Big Partnership to Conserve a Big Place

Cliff Canyon is one of the most rugged places in West Virginia, and 755 acres are now protected forever by a conservation easement with the West Virginia Land Trust.

Steve Callen currently owns Cliff Canyon and had a desire to keep this place wild, undeveloped, and protected forever. He convened three of West Virginia’s conservation organizations and asked for help and advice in achieving his goal. The West Virginia Land Trust, The Nature Conservancy, and the Potomac Conservancy joined forces to bring this vision to completion. The property remains privately owned, but its conservation features are permanently protected by a conservation easement.

Located about 20 miles south of Moorefield, near Milam, in Pendleton County, Cliff Canyon is mostly comprised of limestone. The limestone geology forms rich soils and, combined with very steep slopes and its location in the “rain shadow” of the Appalachian Plateau, a very dry and harsh environment is created where only specific plants and animals are best adapted to survive. River enthusiasts and kayakers may know this site by its other name, Moorefield Gorge, challenging its Class 2 and 3 whitewater in the spring of the year.

“The Nature Conservancy, West Virginia Land Trust and Potomac Conservancy share a vision of protecting West Virginia’s important and special places. Together, we are working to provide a backdrop that makes people want to live, recreate and enjoy the natural wonders of our great state,” said Mike Powell, TNC Director of Lands. He went on to say, “TNC is happy to work on another project with the WVLT where both conservation and West Virginia win by protecting habitats of rare and unique species in an important landscape for nature-based recreation and tourism.”

“I believe that we are all called upon to be good stewards of all life. While there are many environmental threats, it seems clear that the single greatest threat to nearly all life except man is the lack of suitable habitat. I consider it a great privilege to be able to participate in the permanent protection of a unique and relatively undisturbed habitat that supports a large suite of terrestrial and riparian species. The legal protections provided by the easement combined with the onsite physical barriers give me confidence that, at least in this unique canyon, life as intended can continue toward perpetuity,” said Steve Callen, owner of the property.

Biologists and kayakers have known about the property, but the hillsides are so steep that most people rarely venture into this rugged canyon on the South Fork River in Pendleton County. Biologists were eager to see the canyon protected because of the many globally rare plant communities, such as the Southern Appalachian Northern White Cedar Woodland (less than five known occurrences worldwide), and the habitat to many other rare species associated with this dry forest type. The federally threatened Virginia big-eared bat is also known to reside in this remote place, adding to the critical need to keep this location protected. In total, 18 rare species and plant communities occur here, largely due to the limestone geology.

“Cliff Canyon is one of the most exciting places I’ve seen in the Appalachian region, and to find it nestled just out of sight on a common country road is remarkable. I’m thrilled to see this team come together to permanently protect such an extraordinary property,” said Emily Warner, Senior Director of Land Conservation at Potomac Conservancy.

This Cliff Canyon property also secures over three miles of river habitat, protecting water quality, aquatic species, and riparian habitat. West Virginia’s headwater streams (such as the South Fork River) supply clean drinking water to many people downstream. Conservation partnerships and conservation projects like Cliff Canyon benefit nature and people in so many ways.

The Nature Conservancy, West Virginia Land Trust and Potomac Conservancy each played a key role in securing the financial resources and stewarding the project to completion. The three organizations jointly applied to the West Virginia Outdoor Heritage Conservation Fund (OHCF) for financial assistance to protect the Cliff Canyon site.

In 1985, the West Virginia Legislature created the OHCF to invest in the conservation of unique and important wildlife habitats, natural areas, forest lands, farmlands, and lands for hunting, fishing and recreation. The OHCF receives applications from qualified conservation organizations for projects like Cliff Canyon each year.

“This project encompasses so many good qualities, but what stands out to me is the ruggedness of the land and the solitude one feels in this canyon. It is nice to know it will always stay and feel this way,” says Ashton Berdine, Lands Program Manager for WVLT.

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